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Dearborn police disband patrol team to tackle profiling. Will it work?

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Growing up, Michael Martin said rumors lingered of Dearborn's heavy police presence that projected an unwelcoming community to nearby Detroiters.

"We always knew there was an invisible barrier between Detroit and Dearborn," said Martin, 59, who is Black and served as a Detroit police officer for 25 years.

The issue of targeting Detroit's Black drivers still remains in Dearborn, where Mayor Abdullah Hammoud has hired a new police chief and aimed to reduce unnecessary traffic stops in a bid to lessen racial tensions as well as improve anti-crime efforts. 

Dearborn police officer Laniyah Weatherspoon and Cpl. Todd Donaldson pull over a vehicle in Dearborn last month.

Detroit, whose population is 77% African American, is the longest border community of Dearborn, whose population of 110,000 residents is 4% Black, according to the 2020 census.  

"Historically speaking, this is very much an issue of race, and we’re trying to build those bridges with our community members across our city borders," said Hammoud, who took office in January as Dearborn's first Arab American mayor. "I inherit the vision for the future but also the responsibility for the past."

Hammoud and police Chief Issa Shahin knew they had a problem when they reviewed recent statistics from a police tactical team and found traffic stops by the unit were skewed toward Black drivers along the city's borders. The team of a dozen officers also patrolled high-traffic areas, such as Fairlane Town Center and other shopping districts on Michigan Avenue, where crime frequently was reported and officers were looking for illegal weapons.

Dearborn is adopting new policies that Hammoud and Shahin said are expected to rid the department of systemic racism and improve its transparency — including disbanding the tactical team and launching, for the first time, an online database for the public documenting records of arrests, citations, crime mapping and calls for service. 

Dearborn Police Chief Issa Shahin

Dearborn police records from 2019 show about 6,268 or 41% of all 15,400 citations were issued to Black drivers compared with 47% of White drivers. Almost two-thirds, or 65% of the citations, were issued to men ages 20-29, according to a study of the data the city conducted.

Dearborn's department focused on 2019 data because officials argued that COVID-19 pandemic activity didn't reflect historic trends.

The top violations cited were having no proof of insurance or registration, defective equipment like headlights or taillights, and improper registration and license plates, according to the police department. The violations made up half of all tickets issued. Speeding made up less than 4% of the tickets issued.

"I recognize that the previous administration’s policing model was antiquated and led to racial inequities as illustrated by the data," said Shahin, a former commander who has worked at the Dearborn department for 23 years and replaced Ronald Haddad, who was chief for 14 years. "On Day 1, we knew there was a problem that existed, and our policy changes were embraced by the officers."

Traffic safety was a top priority of voters and became a campaign issue for the mayoral candidates in the November election.

“There was an emphasis, back in the day, on high visibility traffic enforcement as a way to lower crime,” Shahin said. “My purpose now is to put police officers in the neighborhoods addressing what matters to residents, which is hazardous and moving violations and I know, as a byproduct, we’ll be safer for it. It’s important for us to address the racial equity piece as well.”

The database goes back to 2019, and copies of the police department's policies can also be found online.

'Not the original intention'

The tactical team, known as the East Border Crime Initiative, launched in 2010 when the U.S. Department of Justice awarded a grant through the Project Safe Neighborhoods Program. Funding supported efforts across the country to address violent crime, including gun violence.

It also allowed the Dearborn and Detroit police departments to work together to address problems in both communities.

“Initially, we’d ride together. I’d get in a car with the Detroit sergeant and we would go back and forth across the border and deal with issues that affected both communities," said Shahin, who was one of the first supervisors to launch the tactical unit. "We were also ATF task force officers dealing with violent crime, and, over the years, it migrated away from that and was not the original intention.”

The officers often would stop vehicles entering Dearborn at Ford Road and Wyoming, along Tireman Avenue or other high-traffic areas for violations, such as a part dangling off a car, Shahin said. Officers then could initiate an investigation based on the traffic violation.

During stops, drivers are asked to provide their driver’s license and proof of insurance. The discovery of anyone with a suspended license could lead to an arrest or a search of a vehicle. 

Of those arrested for driving with a suspended license in 2019, 78% were identified as African American compared with 21% of White suspects. In early 2022 (January-April), that statistic has declined to 55% Black arrests compared with 43% White.

“That traffic stop is like the tipping point for everything else that follows,” Shahin said. “When you see these tragedies across the country, it all initiates with a traffic stop, and I’m saying that I want my officers out there, but focusing on the things that matter to residents.

"Frankly, nobody cares if someone’s driving with a dangling ornament. If a license plate light is out, technically, it’s against the law. But I want my officers, and I don’t have an infinite number out there, to address the things that matter to residents.”

Abdullah Hammoud is Dearborn’s first Arab American and Muslim mayor.

To combat the racially disproportionate number of citations, Dearborn adopted an initiative from the Fayetteville Police Department in North Carolina. There, Chief Harold Medlock implemented a policy to increase police traffic stops for dangerous moving violations, such as speeding, while decreasing the number of non-moving violation stops and ceasing stops altogether for “investigative reasons.”

The result was fewer traffic fatalities and fewer intrusive vehicle searches involving Black drivers, Medlock told the Times News.

“We’re seeing that very same trend here in Dearborn,” Hammoud said. “If we look at the first quarter and compare it over the last few years, at the citations that have been issued, this is the lowest percentage we have over the last four years of African American drivers that have been ticketed here."

In the first quarter of this year, speeding and impeding traffic made up 37% of the 9,251 citations issued, and the department is on pace to issue the most citations for these infractions this year on record, Shahin said. The overwhelming majority of traffic stops this year will be for hazardous moving violations, in stark contrast to 2019.

Of the tickets, 23% this quarter have been issued to Black drivers.

"Metropolitan police Chief Charles Ramsey used to say if you go out there and stop 100 cars and get a gun off the street, that’s great, but in the process, you’ve alienated 99 other people, so that doesn’t make you any safer," Shahin said. "By shifting focus to moving violations, you help reduce the role that racial bias may or may not play in a traffic stop."

This isn't the first time the city's top leaders have tried to confront its racist past. Haddad told The Detroit News last year he was revamping policies for his officers to practice constitutional, colorblind policing. Haddad couldn't be reached for comment on this story.

It was not unusual to have specialized enforcement teams focus on looking for guns at a time when gun violence was spiking in the early 2000s, said Frank Straub, director of the Center for Targeted Violence Prevention at the National Policing Institute.

"Car stops really became a version of stop and frisk of New York City. The idea was to be able to pinpoint corridors where guns may be coming into a city or where individuals with guns may be moving into," Straub said. "As a result, we'd get these specialized teams that became aggressive to recover guns, make arrests or get people to think twice about bringing guns into an area because it was a likelihood they'd get stopped."

The method also risked over-enforcement and oftentimes targeted a disproportionate number of minorities, said Straub, who welcomed the new leadership of Dearborn for disbanding the team for a more holistic approach.

"It's likely that Dearborn was a victim of its own success because its policing showed results. It was ramped up with more resources in an effort to drive the problem down," he said.

Straub said departments need to pay attention to details in the data. 

"While we're driving down crime, are we having an unintended consequence on the population who's now being victimized by police enforcement?" he said. 

earborn police officer Laniyah Weatherspoon on May 27, 2022.

Moving forward

When Hammoud become Dearborn's seventh mayor since Dearborn became a city in 1927, public safety was the top issue in the election campaign, he said.

The Dearborn Police Department has 188 budgeted officers and is the fourth largest municipal police department in the state, excluding county sheriff's offices, Shahin said. The city charter mandates the number of officers.

To accommodate the public's call for more traffic safety, the city is adding speed humps, bump-outs at intersections to encourage drivers to make slower turns, portable speed tracking signs and are promoting messages of responsible driving, according to city officials.

Hammoud and Shahin said they hope disbanding the tactical team will restore faith in the city's public servants and produce a noticeable difference.

Hammoud said Dearborn has a large commuting population seeing traffic from nearby suburbs, but what he feels prevents Black individuals from moving into the city is partly attributable to its history of racism.

The low Black population can be traced to the early 1940s, when Dearborn openly discouraged African Americans from settling in the city, historian James W. Loewen wrote in his 2005 book “Sundown Towns.” The term refers to predominantly White municipalities that practice racial segregation by excluding minorities through discriminatory local laws or intimidation. 

The longstanding practice began with Orville Hubbard, the city's mayor from 1942 to 1978. Hubbard launched a “Keep Dearborn Clean” campaign with the slogan painted on public trash cans and street signs that many said carried a not-so-subtle racist message. 

"(Blacks) can't get in here," Hubbard told an Alabama newspaper reporter in 1956. "Every time we hear of a Negro moving in ... we respond quicker than you do to a fire." 

“The city had a mantra of ‘Keep Dearborn Clean’ to keep African Americans out, but that transformed with time to racists talking about the ‘Arab problem,’" said Hammoud, speaking of how the city evolved into the home of one of the largest Muslim populations in the country. Matthew Jaber Stiffler, research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, said according to federal data sources, less than half of the city is Arab American.

There was a reminder of Dearborn's past last month, when two African American patrons of Westborn Market reported that a White man swung a baseball bat at their car while screaming racial slurs at them. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office charged Jason Edward Lucas with four counts of felonious assault and two counts of ethnic intimidation.

In recent years, it has become mandatory for Dearborn officers to complete training courses in implicit bias, de-escalation and mental health response. The department under Haddad was one of the first in Michigan to complete an "alternative to violent force and bystander training," which requires officers to intervene when witnessing excessive force by other officers. It resulted from George Floyd’s May 2020 killing by police in Minneapolis.

Other changes in recent years have included cutting ties with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which housed detainees in Dearborn facilities as they awaited deportation.

The Dearborn City Council unanimously voted in January 2021 to remove Hubbard's name from the city's performing arts ballroom and his statue from the city’s downtown area the summer before in a reckoning decades in the making, some said.

“It’s important to me that Dearborn is a welcoming community, regardless of race, religion, background. It’s important to be mindful of where we came from to know where we are headed," Shahin said. "We should have a police department that mirrors the people they serve, and I'm excited for the future of this department.”

Martin last week sat with his friend, Shalanda Bell, at Qahwah House along Dearborn's Michigan Avenue, sipping Yemeni coffee and reflecting on how the city has changed, especially for Black men like himself.

"The city has had its issues. Until recently, I was hesitant to come until an Arab friend invited me," said Martin, who retired from the Detroit police in 2014. "Now, I bring my friends here because I love the culture. It's Birmingham-ish but has the feeling of an upscale Ferndale with a relaxing downtown neighborhood that I never knew until recently.

"If people knew about the initiatives and steps being taken," he added, "I absolutely believe it would make a difference to say it's safe and know that you aren't going to be harassed here."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_